Concerns are growing that the KF-X project to develop indigenous fighter jets may not go forward as scheduled due to the failure to receive four core technologies on F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said that the nation will push for cooperation with other foreign firms or autonomously develop the technologies.
However, a DAPA official said Thursday that this would consequently delay the 8.5 trillion won project, codenamed KF-X.
Lawmakers on the National Assembly Defense Committee and defense watchers said the failure to receive the four would cause a rise in production costs as well, and a problem in interoperability with other equipment, which will be mainly based on American technology.
The KF-X project calls for developing fighter jets of the F-16 plus class to replace an aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s by 2025. Some 120 jets are to be built.
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) started the project in March with a plan to secure technological assistance from the U.S. defense giant. When the DAPA signed a 7.3 trillion won deal with Lockheed in September last year to purchase 40 F-35s, it said Korea would receive a total of 25 F-35 related technologies under the offset program.
In less than a year, however, the KF-X program encountered difficulties as the four ― the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, infrared search and track (IRST), electronic optics targeting pod (EOTGP) and RF jammer ― are at the heart of the jet development.
"It depends on the performance of the radar, but developing an AESA radar will take 20 to 30 years if you currently have no technology about it," said a military official asking not to be named.
Rep. Ahn Gyu-baek of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) noted, "Even if Korea develops the core technologies, there would be a compatibility problem with the U.S.," referring to the 21 other technologies.
Defense observers said a possible interoperability problem also applies if the nation receives the technologies from other foreign companies.
They added even if Korea completes the development of the four, there remain further questions as to how to integrate them with aircraft.
"Consequently, the failure to receive them from the U.S. could deal a setback to the KF-X project," said Hong Sung-pyo, KBS's defense news commentator. "How to secure the four technologies is a mission that absolutely needs to be addressed."
Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the ruling Saenuri Party called the technology transfers to be included on the agenda of the Seoul-Washington summit or the two countries' defense ministers' talks.
The DAPA official said, "We will utilize technologies accumulated while developing the KT-1, T-50 and KUH. We will prepare countermeasures to secure technologies that the U.S. refused to hand over."
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